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Swear to Allah, I Luv Ya Babe!

Starting an underground yearbook in Saudi Arabia

Hilal Isler
Apr 15, 2018 · 6 min read
Original art, for The Aerogram, by Nirja Desai.

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I attend an all-girls conservative high school in Saudi Arabia. Our uniform is gray, grazes the ankles, and resembles something Queen Victoria would wear at bedtime. All we do is dream about boys, read contraband American teen magazines, and hide from our principal at prayer time.

In the twelfth grade, my best friend Tara and I lobby for a yearbook. We approach Principal Tagreed in her office, to ask for permission and money. She looks up from her enormous slate desk.

“Why aren’t you at prayer?” she barks.

“We’re menstruating, Miss,” Tara says.

“Seems you two are constantly menstruating,” she says.

The principal says no to giving us money. She says we’re forbidden from publishing a yearbook, on account of photographs being un-Islamic.

“What about no photos?” Tara says.

“What about photos, but only of us doing holy things?” I venture.

“Zero photos,” she says, unibrow quivering in disgust. “Zero photos, zero yearbook, zero everything.”

Tara and I leave her office that morning, ditch our Islamic Studies class, and hide inside the broom closet so we can plot.

“My dad can get them printed for us at a discount, no problem,” Tara says.

“I have money,” I say. “Allowance money, saved up.”

“Don’t be crazy,” Tara says. “We’re not going to pay for it.”

Tara says we’ll charge fifty Riyals a pop, upfront. Each girl will get her own page, which would bring us to 26 pages, plus a few more for other things: a letter from the editors, a best-of list. We’ll have a poll like they do in American high schools: Most Likely to Succeed; Funniest.

“What about something like ‘Best Smile’?” I offer.

“Put it in. ‘Best Smile,’ ‘Best Legs.’ Put it all in. Something for everyone. We’ll make double our money back.” She raises her hand. “I call editor because I’m a Sagittarius.”

“Oh, come on!”

We are whisper-shouting at each other. We are in the hall closet, crouched next to the toilet mops. We’ve cracked the door open, to avoid death by suffocation.

“Sagittarius rules publishing,” she says, smugly.

“What about Aries though?”

“Hitler was an Aries. You can be my assistant.”

“Co-editors,” I say, “or I’m not doing it.”

It is easy to smuggle the yearbook pages in and out of school. We can hide them in our backpacks, or shove them inside our burqas. Burqas are really great for hiding things: Doritos, chin pimples.

Hiding stuff in our classroom is no problem, either. The ceiling tiles are square and made of cork. When the teachers leave the room, we push the tiles up, secreting away all sort of things: bags of sour candy, lipgloss, mustache-removing adhesive strips, underwear catalogs, cassette tapes.

At recess, Tara and I purchase cold metal cans of imitation cola from the canteen and hold clandestine yearbook committee meetings, just the two of us. I want to include an inspirational quote about footprints in the sand, but Tara vetoes the idea. She also vetoes all use of the words ‘milestone,’ and ‘horizon.’

“As editor, I have a no-tolerance policy when it comes to corny. Guys hate corny, by the way,” she says, and she would know. Tara has three brothers, one of whom attends the boys’ section of our high school, on the other side of the wall. Tara thinks we can sell our yearbook over there, too.

“The boys don’t care about our yearbook,” I say.

“Of course they care. They’re desperate, Hilal. Disgustingly horny for us. They walk around with constant erections.”

We don’t end up selling our yearbook to the boys, but it doesn’t matter because we make a killing in class. My share of the profit alone is enough to purchase a 100 ml bottle of Calvin Klein ETERNITY Eau de Toilette.

To our surprise, many girls end up buying multiple copies of the yearbook. We sell color copies at hiked up prices and can’t stay ahead of demand. I feel like we invented the printing press. I feel like a wildly successful publishing maven, like Rupert Murdoch in a burqa. In line at the canteen, drunk with power, I impulsively order everyone a round of imitation cola.

On distribution day, we wait until the coast is clear. It’s lunchtime, and Tara and I climb on top of our wooden chairs to reach into the dark belly of the ceiling, pulling out our gleaming, banned books, passing them around. With ballpoint pens, our classmates scrawl various missives down the margins: Stay sweet! Keep in touch! You are 2 cute 2 B 4Got10!! Swear to Allah, I luv yah baaaaabe!!!!

Tara and I tie for ‘Funniest.’ Aya from Beirut gets Best Body; an obvious choice as she’s the only one among us with actual boobs. Sahar is a shoo-in for Best Eyes. There really is something for everyone.

The yearbook is a marvel of modern publishing. My mother has specially designed the cover, which is protected by see-through plastic. We’ve all crammed as many photographs of ourselves as possible onto our profile page-collages. I’ve only included pictures of myself with a closed-mouth smile, so my braces aren’t noticeable. In several group photos and for unknown reasons, my friends and I are dressed as the Village People.

When Dalia, our classmate from Cairo-Nebraska who is never not smiling, tells us we’ve been found out two days later, we don’t believe her at first. She corners Tara and me in chem lab.

“You’re in big trouble; like, suspension trouble,” she says, grimly. She has overheard Principal Tagreed on the phone in her office, talking to the superintendent in the boys’ section.

“Are you sure she was talking about us?” I ask.

“She had the yearbook. She had it on her desk,” Dalia says. She shakes her head slowly and looks at us with deep pity. “It’s bad. Super bad. You guys might not graduate.”

After chemistry, Tara and I lock ourselves in the same bathroom stall and I start to cry.

“We’re dead!” I wail. “Rest in peace us!”

Tara, usually unflappable, is hit with a sudden sweat tsunami and that’s when I know it’s bad for real. That’s when I know we’re toast.

I don’t sleep well that night. The next day, I call Tara at home. It’s the weekend and her brother picks up.

“Give her the phone,” I say.

“She’s on a plane to Pakistan,” he says. “Left this morning.”

“Shut up, Hussain.”

“I’m serious. The yearbook thing freaked my parents out. She’s gone.”

She has left me without saying goodbye. This is not an overreaction. This is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where teenagers are stoned for going out on a date. A few months prior, my secret crush, Majed, suffered a lashing at the hands of the Mutawa’een, the religious police. His crime: eating Burger King in his Toyota Supra with a girl he’s not related to. The girl is in our class, too. She was in the backseat with her boyfriend, enjoying a Whopper meal when they all got busted in the parking lot. I’m told Majed now has whip-scars that cut across the length of his back, a fact which only makes me like him more.

“Tell Tara thanks for nothing!” I shout at Hussain. “Tell Tara I HATE HER GUTS!”

I slam the phone against its cradle, cracking open the mouth of the receiver, something my dad will ground me for later.

The following workday, my parents get a phone call from Tagreed. If I want to receive my diploma, I must collect all copies of the yearbook and turn them in to her for shredding. We are in the final days of classes, our grades are already in.

At lunch, the girls gather around me and I break the news. They’re crushed. I’m crushed. I ask my dad to make a black and white photocopy of one, so I can save it. I still have it somewhere, probably in storage at my parents’ place.

I am so mad at Tara — who has been my very best friend for as long as I can remember — that I don’t talk to her for several years.

When we finally see each other again, it’s in Boston, where she’s doing her medical residency and I’m in town for a conference. We arrange to meet at a dessert place and when I see her through the window, some knot in me begins to come undone.

I recognize the cover immediately: my mother’s handwriting. By now, my mom is dead of cancer. Tara’s dad, too.

I swing open the door, Tara clutching the yearbook in one hand, and we hug each other. We hug each other, and we hug each other, and this time, we don’t let go.

Some details/names have been changed.

You can also find this piece on The Aerogram, an online “curated take on South Asian art, literature, life, and news.”

PS: The publication I help edit, Muslim Women Speak, is now open to submissions!

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